HC Deb 13 February 2002 vol 380 cc224-69 4.19 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I beg to move, That Mr. Philip John Courtney Mawer be appointed Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on the terms of the Report of the House of Commons Commission, HC 598, dated 6th February. On behalf of the House of Commons Commission, I warmly recommend to the House the name of Mr. Philip Mawer as the next Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on the terms set out in our report to the House.

The previous debate showed clearly the complexity of the commissioner's job and the qualities of toughness and persistence that are required; Mr. Mawer has those qualities in full measure.

I wish to pay tribute to the outgoing commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin. It is no secret that the past few weeks have not been happy ones on either side, but it is right that we should acknowledge her dedication to her work on behalf of the House. She undertook a number of difficult and complicated investigations and brought them to a successful conclusion. We believe that her work, together with the Standards and Privileges Committee's consideration of her reports, has fully validated the system of parliamentary self-regulation set up following the first Nolan report. I will have a word to say about that system shortly.

Like many other hon. Members, I have known and respected Mr. Mawer for his work as secretary-general of the General Synod, and more recently as secretary-general of the Archbishops' Council. He is a person of clear vision, absolute integrity and strong moral values. You would not be surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to find those qualities in someone who has held the highest lay post in the Church of England.

Philip Mawer has much more to offer. He is a man of immense ability. He was principal private secretary to the Home Secretary, and when he was barely 40 he held one of the key jobs at under-secretary level in the Cabinet Office. Ten years before, as a relatively junior official, he was secretary to Lord Scarman's inquiry into the Brixton riots. Lord Scarman, whose views we would all respect, described Philip Mawer as a very clever and hard-working man, with tremendous mastery of detail. Mr. Mawer is a brilliant man in handling questions of principle. Since then, his career has borne out Lord Scarman's assessment.

It is reasonable to ask and answer two questions: Mr. Mawer may be clever, but is he tough enough? Is he not a bit of an insider? The House may not be surprised to hear that Church of England politics are at least as tough as anything that we are used to in this place, although the vocabulary used may be a little more restrained. The issues with which Mr. Mawer has grappled in his present job include the ordination of women, the role of bishops in another place—for the avoidance of doubt, I use our conventional phrase to mean the House of Lords rather than any more exalted forum—and racial discrimination. Such issues are neither simple nor easy.

In one of Mr. Mawer's previous posts he was responsible for Prison Service discipline. In another post, he was head of industrial relations for the Prison Service. A private secretary to one of the most senior members of Government also needs to be pretty tough. The House of Commons Commission has no doubt that, as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, he will be as tough as it takes. To use a phrase I used on television, he frightens the life out of me, so I do not know what he will do to our colleagues.

Is Mr. Mawer an insider? He certainly knows a good deal about this place and about politicians, which can only be a good thing. However, I inform anyone who thinks that familiarity will make him a soft touch that that is not likely to be the case. There is no shortage of people to testify to the fact that Philip Mawer is his own man and, if the House approves the motion, we will all soon come to know and respect his personal authority and independence.

Some may think that my description is of a rather fearsome person. No doubt, Philip Mawer can be fearsome when he wants to be, but he is also a man of understanding and trust. He will pull no punches in his reports, but he is someone whom I for one will readily consult in the certainty that our conversations will remain entirely private.

The Commission's report describes the selection process. We were determined to follow best practice for an appointment of this importance, and the interview board that produced the shortlist included two external members—Sir Gordon Downey and Lord Newton of Braintree, who is better known to us all as Tony Newton. In addition, the later stages of the sifting process, the meetings of the interview board and the final interviews by the Commission were observed by Ms Sheila Drew Smith, an independent assessor recommended by the Commission for Public Appointments. I should like to thank all three for their expert contributions, which were much appreciated.

Our report also notes that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, joined us for the final interviews. We were very glad to have his help, and to draw on his detailed knowledge of the work of the Committee and the commissioners. We look forward to hearing his views on the level of resources required to support the new commissioner's work, and to co-operating closely with him and his Committee.

I shall say a brief word about resources. Mr. Mawer's appointment will initially be on the basis that he will work three days a week, but it will be for him to judge how much time is required. If he thinks that four or five days a week are needed, there will be no difficulty about that.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will my hon. Friend say why the commissioner will work for three days? The job of the commissioner who is leaving was advertised as requiring four days a week. More relevantly, she believes that the job should take up more than three days. I know that some would be happy if the job occupied only one day in the week, but I should have thought that four days would be far more suitable than three.

Mr. Bell

I am grateful for that intervention. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said in the previous debate that the work of his Committee had now concluded. Therefore, we will begin with a clean sheet. If the work requires three, four or five days a week, it will get three, four or five days. A pro rata increase in Mr. Mawer's salary would take that into account.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I do not think that the Committee's work is finished; other inquiries are going on, and the former commissioner was dealing with them. The Committee will continue to make inquiries. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to give the false impression that everything was suddenly clean, neat and orderly.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Commission found it necessary to give a large amount of backpay to the commissioner who has just resigned, as a result of the extra work that she had done? Will he also confirm that the commissioners did not act on the audit of the work that she was doing until after she had gone, and that she had been working under tremendous pressures? Will he explain—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has given the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) enough to answer.

Mr. Bell

With regard to the first point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), I was simply repeating a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire in his statement in the previous debate—that the publication of the report that we discussed earlier concluded a particular piece of work. No doubt there will be other work in the pipeline.

I have no knowledge of the second matter raised by my hon. Friend. I should be happy to send him a written reply and, if necessary, place it in the Library.

Mr. McNamara

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again, and I am sorry to delay the House. Will he say how soon the new commissioner will be able to take up his post in full, given that he might work only one, two or three days a week?

Mr. Bell

My hon. Friend anticipates my next paragraph.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope to catch your eye a little later on, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As a former member of the Commission, the question of procedure and process is of great concern to me. The hon. Gentleman has just said that the commissioner would, if necessary, work more than three days a week. Is that provision formally and clearly set out in a proper contract of employment?

Mr. Bell

The answer to that question is yes.

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, Mr. Mawer expects, if appointed by the House, to begin work from the beginning of March. Initially, he will work one or two days a week. The House will understand that it will take him a little while to relinquish his present responsibilities, but he will increase his commitment as quickly as he can. Those who know Philip Mawer as well as I do know that he will fulfil all the obligations thrust upon him, given that there are seven days in a week.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the hon. Gentleman not find it somewhat surprising that, although the House of Commons has lost the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards under what he described as unfortunate circumstances, our first opportunity to debate that is in a debate on the appointment of a new commissioner? Was that the view of the Commission, of which he is a member, or was the timing of the debate a matter for the usual channels?

Mr. Bell

The appropriate procedure is for the House of Commons Commission to propose the nomination of a candidate in a report presented to the House of Commons by the Speaker. The report was printed on 6 February and presented to the House; this is the first opportunity to debate it.

The House's internal revenue service is considering the staffing resources that the commissioner's office will require and we expect it to report to us shortly. We will then take the views of the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the new commissioner, and we have undertaken to provide whatever resources are judged to be needed.

I said that I would return to self-regulation. Our present system was introduced following the recommendations of the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the Nolan committee. Sir Gordon Downey, the first commissioner, pointed out in a recent article that the House went further than the Nolan committee recommended by giving the commissioner responsibility for assessing whether a case had been made as well as whether there was a case to answer. Sir Gordon also described the introduction of self-regulation as a major step for the House to take. Since Charles I and before, the Commons had spent much of its time resisting attempts by the monarchy to control it and the courts had no jurisdiction over it. Yet voluntarily, in 1995, the House subjected itself to outside scrutiny by a non-elected person. This was not a negligible reform. There has been much discussion of late in the media about parliamentary self-regulation. In my view, self-regulation has to work; outside regulation could create profound constitutional difficulties. It is also my view that self-regulation works and that it will continue to do so. The key elements are the wise guidance and non-partisan recommendations that we expect from the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and his Committee, the readiness of all of us to co-operate fully with the system and a strong, independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Mr. Mawer has all the qualities needed to ensure that the system of parliamentary self-regulation continues to work effectively, and that it is seen to do so both inside and outside the House of Commons.

Mrs. Browning

I have now had a chance to see the Speaker's paper, especially its provisions on resources. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for pressing this point again, but it is pertinent to what I would like to say later if I get the opportunity. Has the new commissioner been given a formal written contract of employment—as we would understand the term in commercial environments, and as opposed to a job description—that clearly sets out not only the parameters and conditions of the job but the processes to be applied when disputes arise. I note that resources have now been brought under the remit of the IRS and the Committee on Standards and Privileges. It is extremely important, however, if the new commissioner is not to experience the same difficulties as the previous commissioner, that there is a contract of employment that can be made available to members of the House of Commons Commission.

Mr. Bell

There certainly is a contract. It is a proper contract and, although I believe that it may be confidential, it covers all the points that the hon. Lady raises.

With that, I commend the motion to the House, and I commend Mr. Mawer to the House.

4.35 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I should like briefly to endorse the speech made by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and thank the Commission for allowing me to take part in the selection process to choose the new commissioner. The Committee on Standards and Privileges clearly has an interest in that appointment and I know that its members welcomed representation in the decision-making process. I found that process thorough and professional. We were confronted with some high-calibre candidates and, as a result, a difficult choice.

I welcome the decision to appoint Philip Mawer. He understands the House of Commons, but is independent of it. In my judgment, he has the right qualities of trust and discretion to develop the preventive and advisory role of the commissioner, to conduct investigations thoroughly and impartially and to prepare reports for the Committee. I look forward to working with him when he starts in March.

As the hon. Gentleman just said, Mr. Mawer's work will be especially important as the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Nigel Wicks, begins its review of self-regulation in the House of Commons.

I welcome the Commission's comments on resources, the fact that there is no restriction on the number of days that the commissioner will work and the recognition that the resources deemed necessary will be made available. That is welcome reassurance for my Committee.

Finally, may I pay tribute to the outgoing commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin? As Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, I enjoyed a good working relationship with her. I admire the qualities that she brought to the job. She handled some complex issues—one of which we have just debated—with thoroughness, impartiality and some courage. She displayed the independence that is a key part of the role of the commissioner. I thank her for her work and wish her well in the future.

4.36 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I want to echo some of the points that have been made before returning to some more formidable points that the House might briefly consider.

I endorse exactly what the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges said about Elizabeth Filkin; she genuinely will be a difficult act to follow. We often use that phrase, but it is true in this case. Mr. Philip Mawer's curriculum vitae gives me every reason to believe that he is an admirable person to try to do this difficult job on our behalf.

We should recognise that over the past few months the perception of our ability to regulate our conduct in this place has been, at best, under attack. Some would say that our ability has been weakened; our role needs to be reviewed.

I hope, however, that hon. Members and people watching, listening to or following our proceedings will take comfort from the way in which the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee approached the difficult issue that we addressed a few moments ago. The report is admirable and will, I hope, restore to some extent confidence outside and inside this place in our ability to self-regulate.

I note the point made by the right hon. Gentleman about our being looked at by Sir Nigel Wicks and his colleagues. I hope that the evidence taken by Sir Nigel will not be all negative. I hope that he will see some merit in the way in which we have handled such matters in the recent past as well as some points for inquiry and possibly criticism and improvement.

I hope that Sir Nigel will look carefully at the crucial relationship between the work of the commissioner and that of the Committee on Standards and Privileges in performing the difficult and sometimes invidious task of self-regulation. On many occasions, Members of the House and people outside this place have drawn my attention to the fact that that relationship is critical in achieving effective self-regulation. I am concerned that, on occasion, either the Committee has not seen that role with quite the clarity or definition that we would have hoped for, or the commissioner has found it difficult to see the proper frontier between his or her role and that of the Committee.

As one Member put it to me, it is surely the role of the commissioner to act as the linesman—to put up the flag—but it is the responsibility of the Committee to act as referee. That may not be a perfect way to describe the respective roles, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it has some validity.

I share some of the anxiety that Members on both sides of the House expressed about how soon the new commissioner will be able to take up a full role and perform the full task that we are laying upon him. Initially—in a matter of weeks—he will be able to give us one day a week. If, with the leave of the House, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) responds to the debate, I hope that he will say how quickly we will progress to the absolute minimum requirement of three days; otherwise, a backlog will inevitably build up in a matter of months.

What period of notice do Mr. Mawer's ecclesiastical employers want him to work? Is he under a great obligation to them or, indeed, to a higher authority? [Interruption.] Hand signals are being given to me from across the House, although I do know not whether they are the result of divine intervention. A substantial backlog could be created within a matter of months, which would lead to a problem. We must hope that no cases are brought to the new commissioner's attention, but if they are it would clearly be unsatisfactory if his terms of employment failed to meet the needs of the House.

The House has not covered itself in glory by dealing with the matter as it has done in recent months—a view that is widely shared within it. Even if the media have been over-critical in some respects and have jumped to conclusions, I am afraid that we have given them some cause to do so. We sometimes get the press that we deserve, and on this occasion we have.

I have a particular concern that is not new; indeed, I expressed it when the Braithwaite inquiry examined the way in which the House conducts its business, runs the building and performs its work. It seems invidious that we cannot question the Chairman of the Commission. Despite the responsibilities that we lay on the Speaker, we cannot challenge, question or probe him in the House. The issue before us should have brought that concern to our immediate attention.

I expressed that concern to Braithwaite in the different context of the financial management of the House, which involves millions of pounds. None the less, it is wrong to ask the Speaker to chair the Commission on our behalf, given that he cannot be accountable to, or answerable to, the House. We cannot question the Speaker in that manner, because to do so would endanger his authority in many other ways.

I hope that the Leader of the House, the Commission and the Speaker will look again at the problem, because it is likely to recur time and again if we do not address it now. That implies no criticism of successive Speakers or of successive members of the Commission. Back Benchers who are non-ex officio members of the Commission—at the moment there are two, but there will be three—serve the House in that capacity without payment, reward or recognition. Usually, they receive only brickbats, and we should think carefully about that. That role has been particularly onerous in recent months, and has subjected them to much criticism. I hope that we can consider that issue.

I pay full respect not only to the commissioner but to the way in which the Standards and Privileges Committee undertook its responsibilities in particularly difficult circumstances in recent weeks. I enthusiastically endorse the nomination before us, but I hope that the Leader of the House and all those with a role in other parts of the building will think carefully about the issues that I have raised.


David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I begin by wishing the new parliamentary commissioner well—it would be wrong to do otherwise—and I hope that he will carry out his duties in the way that we would all wish. Indeed, I have no reason to believe otherwise. However, the circumstances in which Elizabeth Filkin is leaving today are, to say the least, disquieting. My speech will be critical of the fact that her contract has not been renewed. If that is a minority point of view, so be it; it is mine and I want to explain why I have reached that conclusion.

When the House debated Elizabeth Filkin's appointment on 17 November 1998, there was much praise for the way in which she had carried out her previous duties.

I have given the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) notice that I shall refer to his remarks, and I make no criticism of him. He said of Mrs. Filkin: I encountered her when she was adjudicator for the Inland Revenue. I was impressed by her commitment to her job and her staff, but, crucially, I was impressed by the fact that she retained the confidence of the Revenue, the body that she was investigating. That showed that she was fair, and that her work commanded respect. Likewise, I sent a note to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who was then a Home Office Under-Secretary. She spoke on behalf of the Leader of the House and said of Elizabeth Filkin: Her recent role as the adjudicator for the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Department of Social Security Contributions Agency will ensure that she brings to the post a wealth of experience and a reputation for independence and integrity."—[Official Report, 17 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 809-21.] Of course, that did not necessarily mean that the arrangement would work in practice, but my argument is that Mrs. Filkin brought to the position the qualities mentioned by those two Members. She is leaving because she was too independent and too determined to be fobbed off in the investigations. That is why her contract was not renewed.

Those qualities—independence and determination—are normally thought to be admirable, not a reason for what amounts to dismissal. Although I have encountered criticism of Mrs. Filkin—not in the Chamber, but around the place—I have not heard a single Member say that she is politically biased for or against any particular party. In view of the investigation she carried out, any such accusation would be laughable.

It is strongly denied that there was any whispering campaign against Mrs. Filkin, but she clearly does not accept that, as stated in the correspondence between her and the Speaker. I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, that perhaps the question of who chairs the Commission should be considered. I make no criticism of the Speaker, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is difficult to quote the Speaker in debate, and one does not wish to do so because it is rather invidious. That is the situation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) said, the House of Commons praised the work undertaken by Mrs. Filkin. Indeed, she is praised in the House of Commons Commission document. Fine words, but this question is inevitable: if she carried out her duties in such a manner, why was she not reappointed?

Mrs. Filkin wrote to the Speaker on 28 November, and it is important for her view as set out in that letter to be heard: I wrote to the Clerk of the House on 5 November 2001 to request that you explain to me why it has been decided that, exceptionally, I would not be offered a second term. I have received no explanation. The Leader of the House, in response to a question about this new procedure of readvertising the post after one term, said that it had been adopted in the interests of openness and transparency. This is hard to accept. This arrangement was not required in the case of my predecessor, nor, it appears from the published advertisement, will it be for my successor. It is up to the House to decide with what seriousness to take the following comment—I take it very seriously. She said: Security of position, which this decision violates, was established in relation to my predecessor. It applies across the board to Nolan-inspired posts which require independence and impartiality. Job security in such posts matters because it allows, where necessary, conclusions to be reached which may be unpopular with the employer in the short term. Clearly, Mrs. Filkin is not leaving because she wished to do so. Clearly, she would have been willing to carry on in the position if her contract had been renewed. As I have said, we have had no explanation.

Why has not the present parliamentary commissioner, who will be leaving this week, been offered the position? It is said that she can apply for her own position—a rather humiliating situation, even if there was any chance that she would be accepted. Would a single hon. Member who is in the Chamber now say that, if Mrs. Filkin had gone through the humiliating procedure of applying for her own job, she would have stood a chance? No—the silence is adequate. The real criticism against Mrs. Filkin was not that she spoke to the press or that she involved herself in matters outside her remit. I do not believe that those allegations have any substance.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Is my hon. Friend aware that Mrs. Filkin was regularly quoted in the press, including statements that she made on a Saturday, for example? How does he account for her having such ready access to the press on a day when servants are normally not available?

David Winnick

If the press rang the parliamentary commissioner and she was conducting an investigation, I see no reason why she should not have said so.

Several hon. Members


David Winnick

I shall give way in a moment; I am replying to an intervention. Let us be clear—are we saying that, in effect, Mrs. Filkin has not been reappointed because she spoke to the press? If so, we should have had an explanation from the House of Commons Commission. Allegations about speaking to the press should be made official; let the House of Commons Commission say so, and we would then have an explanation that we could accept or reject. I do not think that we can work on the basis of what my hon. Friend has just said. I have a great deal of genuine respect for him, but I do not believe that that is a good explanation.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that we have to make a differentiation about speaking to the press? Mrs. Filkin was entitled to speak to them about the nature of her work and her office, and we should not to impute from that that she was guilty of leaks, which she was not. I hope to deal with that later.

David Winnick

I entirely agree. I do not believe that she was responsible for leaking information in any way whatever, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend has cleared that up.

Mr. Salmond

Would not the right way to bring complaints about our Standards Commissioner have been through the House of Commons Commission to the Floor of the House, where those issues could have been properly examined, debated and, I suspect, largely dismissed?

David Winnick

Indeed. I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. As I have said, it was up to the House of Commons Commission to deal with such issues. On reflection, it accepts that, in many ways, matters could have been dealt with very differently.

The critics say that Mrs. Filkin lacked a sense of balance and that she could not distinguish between serious allegations and those that were not in that category. Again, I do not believe that that was the case. She had a duty to investigate fully. After all, until she investigated, how could she know whether the allegations had any substance? Let us not forget that this is not the Inland Revenue; this is a political battlefield. Hon. Members on each side of the House will make accusations against the other, as political ammunition. We are in politics—that is part of democracy. Such allegations are made, and it is up to the parliamentary commissioner to investigate them, recognising the place in which she undertakes her duties. She simply cannot say that they are tit-for-tat matters; she has to decide whether they have any substance.

The impression that one gets from the critics is that Mrs. Filkin had a wish to do down the Commons and make adverse reports as often as she could. I cannot for the life of me see why she should have any such motive. Why should she wish to do down the House of Commons?

An hon. Member, whom I shall not mention by constituency or name—I could not mention him by name in any case—told me today that he had been treated very fairly by the Standards Commissioner. He was one of several hon. Members who told me that the commissioner had asked to see them after allegations had been made about them as individuals, sometimes—as in the case of the hon. Member that I mentioned—allegations that were made outside the House. Such Members said that they were very impressed. They were heard courteously, their explanation was accepted, or very nearly accepted, and the commissioner made no adverse report but gave good advice. It is unfortunate that those hon. Members have not said that in today's debate; it would perhaps have given a sense of balance to what is happening.

When the parliamentary commissioner thought that there had been an infringement of the rules relating to outside financial interests, she said so regardless of position and seniority, and certainly party. Is not that what we wanted from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards? Is not that the way in which we wanted the work to be carried out?

If we are to continue with self-regulation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough has said should be the case, there is an argument that responsibility for appointing and renewing the contract of the parliamentary commissioner should be given to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. If that were to happen, the recommended person would be subject, or otherwise, to the confirmation of the House, and then of course the House would debate accordingly. However, self-regulation has its difficulties. We are saying, in effect, that we should appoint the parliamentary commissioner and decide whether the contract should be renewed. By following that procedure, we arrived at the present very unhappy position.

It gives me no satisfaction whatever to have been so critical, but I am, as my remarks have obviously shown. I repeat that I would have liked the parliamentary commissioner to be reappointed. It was a shabby aspect of the whole matter that she was not reappointed to her position, and Elizabeth Filkin is leaving in circumstances that do not bring much credit to the House of Commons.

Mrs. Filkin can leave with a sense of pride, because she has carried out her duties in the way that she promised when appointed. She has been impartial and conscientious. She has acted honourably at all times—that is my view and seems to be the view of the House of Commons Commission—and has undertaken her duties with undoubted ability. She is going—let us have no illusions on this score—simply because she has been too conscientious. That is why Elizabeth Filkin will be leaving the services of the House of Commons this week. By not renewing her contract—by allowing her to leave in such circumstances and without good reason—I believe that we have let ourselves down.

4.58 pm
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

To summarise what I am about to say, I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick).

I also agree with the nomination put forward for our approval by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). The House of Commons Commission and those who helped it have made a good choice. I imagine that if they had not chosen Mr. Philip Mawer, they would have picked someone just about as good. They follow in the line of those who chose Sir Gordon Downey and Elizabeth Filkin.

No criticism can be made of the quality of the people who have been nominated to serve our country by being employed as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

There is a question of fact about who the commissioner is actually employed by. We are told that it is the House of Commons Commission, but I have looked at the 23rd annual report of the House of Commons Commission, trying to find a reference to the Commission's responsibilities in employing the commissioner. I have not found one.

Opening the report at random—say, in the middle where the staples are—I see that the Serjeant at Arms Department uses traffic lights to denote whether targets have been met. If they were used to test the Commission's actions over the past year with regard to the present Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the traffic light would not be smiling as it is on page 44 because performance is below target.

I do not intend to criticise any individual on the Commission, although I will get fairly close to that with the Leader of the House. In August last year, an article in the Financial Times reported Elizabeth Filkin, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, is unlikely to have her contract renewed when it expires in January—despite recent supportive comments from Robin Cook, leader of the House of Commons. It goes on to say that the remarks by the Leader of the House in the previous month were designed to 'cool' the whispering campaign against Ms Filkin and that his words should not be interpreted as his formal backing that she should stay on. I do not want to ask the Leader of the House to explain how those remarks got into the newspaper. All I want to do is to use them as evidence that it was on the record and known to the House of Commons Commission by then that there was a whispering campaign against the commissioner.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

The hon. Gentleman said that he was not going to ask me about that, but with his permission I will respond. I checked my diary after he raised this matter in the House some time ago. In the two weeks preceding 20 August, I was not in London; I was in Edinburgh. I spoke to no one from the Financial Times throughout that period and can shed no light on how those words appeared there. If he is suggesting that I communicated them to the Financial Times, I hope that he will withdraw the comment.

Peter Bottomley

I would, but I did not suggest that. The right hon. Gentleman should be slightly less sensitive.

Mr. Cook

I am being criticised; of course I am sensitive

Peter Bottomley

The right hon. Gentleman should wait until I get around to the criticism. So far, he has responded to a question that I explicitly did not put to him. I accept what he says and have not contradicted him. He has not faced an accusation.

I was making the point that people knew about the whispering campaign. If the House of Commons Commission was fulfilling the role of employer and also, therefore, protector, of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, it needs to ask itself collectively whether any action was taken on the whispering campaigns against her before the Speaker's letter. I believe that the whispering campaign started long before that. The Commission should have taken action that would at least have become known to the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Mr. Bell

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about why the Commission did not intervene in the so-called whispering campaign. The Speaker wrote to Elizabeth Filkin but she was unable to supply evidence. Had the letter been sent earlier, there would have still been no evidence.

Peter Bottomley

The hon. Gentleman did better in the first part of that sentence. The Speaker, in his role as Chairman of the House of Commons Commission rather than in his role as Speaker—the distinction is not important and I am not criticising him in any way—wrote the letter in November. The Financial Times had the report in August and it only confirmed what many people already knew about the attacks on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards by those who felt vulnerable.

All I am trying to establish is that the House of Commons Commission or a member of it first asked the commissioner about a whispering campaign in November. The letter could have been better drafted. It could have said that the Commission would protect the person fulfilling the function of the commissioner, whether or not the whispering campaign and the pressure were having an effect on that person.

It is some years since I gave up my fellowship in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which used to be called the Institute of Personnel Management. However, my experience in personnel management is extensive. I have had ministerial and professional responsibility for it, and I know a lot about it.

What has happened to the present commissioner would, in most employments, be an open-and-shut case of unfair, constructive dismissal. I shall illustrate that with one example.

Answers from the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who answers for the House of Commons Commission, say that the Commission knows that the commissioner has been working for five days a week. The Commission knows that it has been paying her for four days a week. It advertised her job at three days a week.

I turn now to the Leader of the House. On several occasions in the past two months, he has repeated the abbreviated remark, which is true, that the commissioner could apply for her job up to the moment when the applicants on the shortlist were interviewed. There is not a single recorded occasion on which the Leader of the House, speaking as a senior member of the Government and close associate of the Prime Minister, as the representative of the House or as a member of the House of Commons Commission, acknowledged in public that what he failed to say is that the commissioner could apply for her job, which she currently does for five days a week, on condition that she applied to do it for three days a week with 60 per cent. of her present work load.

Mr. Robin Cook

indicated dissent,.

Peter Bottomley

When the Leader of the House shakes his head, I assume that he is agreeing with me.

Mr. Cook


Peter Bottomley

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he will say when, on the Floor of the House, he said that the commissioner could apply for her job, which she is doing for five days a week, but she had to apply to do it for three days a week.

Mr. Cook

I am very happy to respond by saying that what the hon. Gentleman says is simply not true. If the commissioner had applied for and got the job, she could certainly have asked to be appointed on the present basis, which is four days a week. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that if we had appointed her and she had sought to work for four days, then, just as with Mr. Mawer, she would have got four days. There is no question of her having been invited to apply on the basis of a cut in pay or hours.

Peter Bottomley

I shall not repeat it more than once, but my point is that I have not found a recorded occasion in the House in the past two months—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman would do better to listen. I have not found a recorded occasion in the past two months when he has stated the additional fact that he was inviting the commissioner to reapply for her job although it was advertised at three days a week. Not only was that fact not explicit; it was not mentioned at all.

We know that the commissioner was working five days a week, that the advertisement was for three days a week and that there had been a row about that reduction, but the right hon. Gentleman never mentioned that. From his reported remarks it sounded as though the commissioner could carry on as long as she applied—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Sedentary interventions do not help the debate.

Peter Bottomley

With the Leader of the House chuntering away like that, I almost feel that I should apologise for speaking. The point has been made, and I think that he accepts it.

Mr. Cook

If the hon. Gentleman will give way, I will reply to his allegations.

Peter Bottomley

I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Cook

For the avoidance of doubt, there was never any suggestion, to Mrs. Filkin or to anyone else, that if she applied for the job and was reappointed, there would be a cut in pay or a cut in hours. Had she been reappointed, she would have retained her pay and her four days a week. Although the job was advertised at three days, we have made it plain in the House on several occasions that we were willing to discuss with whoever was appointed the number of days that that person would work. Indeed, I seem to recall my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) saying precisely that in relation to Mr. Mawer

Peter Bottomley

The Leader of the House will be able to read what I said, and I hope that when he has done so, he will understand that his interventions have been off the point. I said that I would repeat what I had said only once, so I will not go on with that point.

We now come to the question of when the House of Commons Commission, of which the right hon. Gentleman is a member, decided to pay the commissioner for the extra days that she has been working, when up to now she has not been paid for them. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough for saying that if a written question is tabled, the House will be given that information. I think that the answer will confirm my belief.

No one on the Commission has been motivated by malice. However, the Commission's responses to certain matters included a combination of mistakes and misunderstandings, and an impression of apparent malice on the part of some people outside the Commission has been created.

Some inaccurate answers have been given which the Commission has, rightly, corrected. For example, it gave an answer that said that Sir Gordon Downey had been working—and been paid for—three days a week. In fact, he was always paid for four days a week. When he left his post, he said that if the work load decreased, the job could be done in three days a week, and that may have been the comment that people had in mind. It was a simple misunderstanding and the mistake has been corrected.

What was not correct was an assurance that the Leader of the House gave me in October, I believe. He asserted—which I think means that he thought, but did not know—that the Commission had followed the advice by which the House expects Ministers to abide in the code on public appointments. That assertion was wrong in three respects.

First, if someone is not up to the job, they should not have the chance to be reappointed. From the right hon. Gentleman's saying that if Elizabeth Filkin reapplied, she would immediately be put on the shortlist—and, we presume, treated fairly and on her merits—we deduce that she was not only up to the job, but proven to be so to the extent that she would have reached the shortlist.

Elizabeth Filkin was as competent as her predecessor, Sir Gordon Downey, who was sounded out, not officially by the Commission but by a senior member of the Government, about whether he would be interested in a second term. Having reached the age of 70, his answer was, "No, but thank you". I think that I am right in saying that the advertisement for Elizabeth Filkin's successor states explicitly that reappointment was possible by mutual agreement. The House and the country are left with the question of why Elizabeth Filkin was not sounded out about reappointment. We have had no answer—perhaps there is none, but the question is real.

A second feature of the code on public appointments is that people should be required to go through open competition if they have served for 10 years, or if they are on their third term. Neither condition is true of Elizabeth Filkin: she would have been seeking a second term, or the House ought to have been seeking a second term for her.

Thirdly, if people are not to continue, they should have a decent amount of notice of that fact. Had Elizabeth Filkin applied for her own job at the advertised three days a week, she would have known whether she had got the job a week ago—a week before her current term ends. That breaks the code on ministerial appointments. Although the Leader of the House might have been right to say that he believed that the code had been followed, that belief, albeit genuinely held, was wrong on the three grounds that I have outlined.

The system matters. It does not matter whether the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is officially responsible to the House of Commons Commission, which has not distinguished itself in that role in the past three years, or to, say, the Committee on Standards in Public Life or its Chairman. That distinction is not especially important except to the secular theologists who advise the House.

It is right to consider whether the term should be longer, and whether reappointment should be offered unless there is a reason not to offer it. The current position is illustrated by the curious circumstances of the end of Elizabeth Filkin's term. She is right that the current assumption of independence and support for impartial, fair and competent work by her office has been challenged by the events of the past six months.

The only modification that I would make to the operation of the complaints procedure—only a minor part of the work load of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards—is that in normal circumstances, a person making a complaint should be asked whether they have put it directly to the Member concerned. If the answer is no, the commissioner should urge the complainant to do so. Many misunderstandings could be dealt with and problems rectified if that were a preliminary step. However, that is a step for the House to institute, not for the commissioner herself.

I remind those who listen to our debates that the commissioner does not write the rules—the House writes them.

I turn to the curious—in a proper sense—appointment of Mr. John Stonborough to advise the Commission. I have not met him, and I will not be critical, but he has a reputation as an adviser on crisis management. I do not fully understand why, if it is dealing properly with the appointment or reappointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Commission, or the House itself, would need such an adviser.

It is unfortunate that the "Londoner's Diary", in the Evening Standard, carried a report apparently directly quoting Mr. Stonborough. I do not think that any direct quotation in a newspaper necessarily means that the words were said or, if they were said, that they were reported in context. He was reported to have said something about the argument being one-sided and that, in some sense, he would balance that. The debate or argument ought to be in the House.

That leads me to the Prime Minister's answer to a question from—I think—the hon. Member for Walsall, North on the reappointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The Prime Minister said that it was a matter for the House. Within hours, the Leader of the House said, "Yes, and it will wait until there is a nomination from the House of Commons Commission on who the successor might be", and that it would be possible for a Member to table an amendment to such a motion, substituting the name of Elizabeth Filkin for that of, say, Philip Mawer.

For all sorts of reasons, that is not a happy or sensible way of proceeding. The Leader of the House was wrong to suggest that it was. It clearly showed that, whichever hat he was wearing at the time, he was deliberately frustrating the option for the House to debate the merits of Mrs. Filkin. In fact, of course, we are debating the merits of Philip Mawer, which are not only self-evident but have been proclaimed by Members.

I do not think that the Prime Minister has his heart in this standards business. His whiter than white and cleaner than clean remarks do not really stand up. He has not explicitly made abiding by the parliamentary code part of the ministerial code, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said.

I commend to the Prime Minister his declaring, in his own voice, that abiding by Members' responsibilities is part of being a Minister, so that any Minister from now on who does not fully co-operate with the parliamentary standards procedure, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in particular, will cease to be a Minister. The option not to do so should just go. Then, the remarks that, sadly, were made in the previous debate on the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) by a Minister would not be necessary, although Members of Parliament could still draw such matters to the attention of the House.

The Prime Minister did not require the Deputy Prime Minister to accept the invitation from the Committee on Standards and Privileges to register the union flat. Frankly, the Prime Minister should have said to the Deputy Prime Minister, "You should." We have not had any explanation from either of them as to why that registration has not occurred.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

What has this got to do with the appointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards?

Peter Bottomley

In response to that question from a Government supporter, I was adding a few remarks on how I believe that the Prime Minister could help the system of which the commissioner is a significant part.

We then come to reports about the media and Elizabeth Filkin. The matter was first brought to my attention by somebody who asked me, "Did you see what she said at the Royal Society of Arts?" I asked, "What is she said to have said?" The Member pointed it out to me. I said, "I was at that meeting. That wasn't what she said; it wasn't the way she spoke. I was present, you weren't. What's the complaint?" I was told to look at what had been reported. Too many people seem to be sensitive about what is reported. The fact that the House of Commons Chamber is dominated at one end by a Press Gallery that is full of people who have the option to report what is said in the Chamber or spend their time listening to what people say in the Corridors seems to have passed such people by.

Commissioners—past, present and future—should be judged on what they are employed to do. I hope that, from now on, every commissioner will do what previous commissioners have done: explain their role and frankly answer questions about whether there is an inquiry into a complaint against a Member of Parliament. If the commissioner is not allowed to say yes or no to that, whispering campaigns against Members occur.

The parliamentary standards process is as good a protection to the public and to Members of Parliament alike, and it requires the commissioner to be able to give such factual answers. I have not heard the slightest whisper from a single journalist on any occasion during the past three years that Elizabeth Filkin said anything improper or out of order with regard to a current inquiry, unless it is considered improper for her to confirm that an inquiry is taking place or to say that no inquiry is taking place.

I think that Philip Mawer will do well. I think that Elizabeth Filkin did well. If he does as well as she did, or, certainly, as well as Gordon Downey did, the House will be well served.

As a tribute to Elizabeth Filkin, I quote the remarks of a director of the Britannia building society, who said that the question asked by the company about every proposal was whether it would pass the Filkin test—in other words, whether it was right. That is the question that she had to ask about what Members of Parliament were doing. Each of us, whether we came under her invigilation or not, will find that her advice has been good.

I hope that Philip Mawer's advice will be equally good and that he will have the support of the House. Elizabeth Filkin did not have that support from every quarter. It is about time that senior Members of the House, whether in government or not, gave her the support that she deserved, and they should give Philip Mawer the support that he will need.

5.20 pm
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

As I did not take part in the previous debate, may I congratulate the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee on the fairness and objectivity with which he presented the case on behalf of the Committee? It is no more than any of us would have expected of him.

I join others in endorsing the nomination of Mr. Mawer. I do not know him, but what I have heard of him suggests that he has every prospect of being able to take on a job which has certain fundamental flaws within it. The first flaw was touched on by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley).

In the opening speech of the afternoon, there was a comment about the rules written by the commissioner. The rules were not written by the commissioner; they were written by the House of Commons. The problem for the House of Commons and for the commissioner was that when the House of Commons approved them, it did not understand the severity and tightness of the rules that it had introduced. The commissioner therefore bore much of the blame for carrying out the new standards and rules that the House, perhaps unwittingly, had determined. She should not be blamed for that.

The rules post-Nolan were made much tighter than many people realised. Indeed, we have made recommendations for a slight loosening of the rules, which I hope will be brought before the House in the near future.

The second flaw is the system. That was the point that I made when my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) was kind enough to let me intervene on his speech. As I said, I do not see that there is any problem with the commissioner speaking about her job. The allegation was of leaks.

As I was saying, the second flaw is the system itself. Within the system, anyone—too many people have been playing games in the House, as we know, with tit-for-tat referrals—can refer any colleague, or any outsider can refer any Member, and tell a journalist that he has done so. If that journalist then contacts the commissioner's office to confirm that the letter has been received, the next thing that we see is a headline "Sleaze inquiry against local Member"

Mrs. Browning

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. There are occasions when a matter comes into the public domain and is commented on in the Chamber. It is then put to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate. However, when Members of Parliament decide to refer a matter to the commissioner for investigation, it is incumbent on them to wait for the conclusion of that process before notifying the world at large. I have made only one such referral to the commissioner, and I abided religiously by that rule. It would have been most unfair to have made the matter public before the commissioner had had a chance to conclude it. It is inevitable that the commissioner will be asked by the press if the matter goes the other way.

Mr. Williams

May I embarrass the hon. Lady by saying that I am sorry she gave me that prompt, because I was going to commend the way in which she dealt with the matter? The referrals that she made were based on a misinterpretation by the press of certain circumstances, and she could have tried to get easy publicity out of the situation. The referrals were then rejected by the commissioner, who never made any public comment on them. Since receiving that rebuttal, the hon. Lady has not attempted to make any political capital out of the matter. That is how it should be done. I promise her that she was already in my mind because the case happened so recently.

Many of the so-called leaks were, for no reason, attributed to the commissioner. No one has ever been able to prove that against her. The person making the allegation has only to give the press the information that he has given the commissioner, which the commissioner may have shown to the witness, and the press can run a story based on the allegation without having got any information or endorsement from the commissioner.

David Winnick

Has there ever been a case in which Labour, Conservative or Liberal Members have made such allegations to the commissioner without telling the press what is going on? Being politicians, that is the first thing that they are likely to do. Why should anyone be surprised about that, given the nature of this place?

Mr. Williams

My hon. Friend is putting the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) in a most embarrassing position—her halo is positively glistening. She is genuinely one of whom I can say—

David Winnick

One exception.

Mr. Williams

She is the one who comes to mind, but there have probably been others. Indeed, there must have been, because the commissioner has often said, "I have had five or six referrals", and we have seen nothing about them in the press. Some hon. Members show integrity; others, unfortunately, cannot resist a headline and do not care what malicious damage they do to parliamentary colleagues by exploiting the situation.

Mrs. Browning

In the run-up to a general election, it has been the practice of some hon. Members spuriously to refer a case involving another Member to the commissioner so that they can say in their election literature that that Member is under inquiry by the commissioner, in the knowledge that there is insufficient time for the matter to be properly explored. Looking below me down the Gangway, I can see Liberal Democrat Members nodding; they know what I am talking about. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we must try to ensure that that does not happen?

Mr. Williams

The hon. Lady is absolutely correct, and I do not exonerate Members of any party from that practice. The tragedy is that Members who have been so self-indulgent have not recognised that they damage not only the Member against whom they make the allegation, but—cumulatively, along with others who are doing the same—the House of Commons by giving the impression that it is sleaze-ridden. In fact, most of the referrals of the past five years did not deal with what would in the past have been described as sleaze.

Whispers are a reality of the House of Commons—that is a systemic problem—and some may be malevolent or malicious. It is a function of the way in which the House works. One has to come in here every day—the Whips make sure of that.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

Quite right, too.

Mr. Williams

Well, sometimes we listen to them. Day in, day out, we have to carry on working with friends— or, worse, people who are not friends—who are aware that investigations are going on. It is understandable, if we are locked in here from 10 o'clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night and we want to get something off our chest, that we go and talk to our colleagues. A lot of the so-called whispering is what I would call self-exoneration, or trying to explain things away. Cumulatively, however—because in many cases the exoneration was not endorsed by the Committee—that also damaged the commissioner because it gave, perhaps inadvertently, the impression of unreasonableness.

My next point goes off at a tangent, in a way, but it follows on from my complimenting the Chairman of the Committee. During the fast Parliament, I stood in as Chairman when my parliamentary colleague, now Lord Sheldon, was ill. It is correct that we are now doing in this Committee what we have always done in the Public Accounts Committee. All Committees in this House have a Government majority. In Committees dealing with standards—the PAC deals with standards of financial propriety; this Committee deals with standards of behaviour—and those that deal not with Government matters but with House of Commons matters, it is important that there should be certainty in their independence.

We have always accepted that the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee should be a member of the Opposition; that created a good precedent. I hope that that will be sustained by future Governments of whichever party, and that the Chair of the Standards Committee will also always be from the Opposition. That would help to get rid of the nonsensical arguments that arise when unanimous decisions are made in the Committee, yet people in the lobby write, "Government majority on Committee dragoons its members and forces them into decisions."

Peter Bottomley

I want to add a footnote in case any historians look at this. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there was no suggestion that Robert Sheldon, who chaired the Committee during the previous Parliament, behaved any differently—although he was a Labour MP—from the way in which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has? The right hon. Gentleman's point about the appearance of greater impartiality is a good one, however.

Mr. Williams

I am not impugning anyone in any way. In this Committee so much depends on perception and on people outside believing in what we do, instead of doubting what we do. I am going to say something now that will offend two of my colleagues—I had not intended to say it—but it is not meant to, because they are excellent members of the Committee. However, in this Committee more than any other, its members have to make a choice. They should either be a Parliamentary Private Secretary and not be on the Committee, or vice versa. This Committee must be as detached as possible in every way from the Executive.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) for saying that, because his legal advice has made an invaluable contribution to the Committee over the last five years, particularly in the last Parliament, when lawyers—I apologise to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) here—did not abound in the Committee as they now do. That expertise was most welcome, and I hope that he will choose to stay on the Committee. However, I think that most hon. Members would understand if he felt that he had to keep one eye on his career prospects. Perhaps the Leader of the House could reassure him that if he made the right decision it would in no way undermine his prospects.

I have spoken for too long already, but this is my final point. As one who has worked as an acting Chairman with the present commissioner, I pay tribute to her assiduity, her determination and her meticulousness. Those qualities were a nuisance if one had something to hide; they ceased to be a nuisance if one had nothing to hide. The qualities she showed in investigating cases were of the highest standard, and I wish her well in whatever job she goes to.

5.34 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

When I was shadow Leader of the House, I was a member of the House of Commons Commission. I do not want to discuss some of the points that have been raised today in detail; I would prefer to speak in general terms. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) prayed in aid his experience of employment law and good employment practice in a former life. I too have experience of a former life—my business life, in which I spent a lot of time advising organisations, especially in the corporate sector, on communication.

When, as a member of the Commission, I considered the point that we had reached with the last Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Mrs. Filkin, I decided that the House should do something about one aspect, although it might not be unusual here. The House is not a good employer. We are not good at applying best practice in the way in which we, as MPs, would expect it to be applied in the wider business world. I think the House is now addressing that problem—the Braithwaite report, which was mentioned earlier, was an extremely useful exercise which put us on the right track—but we are not there yet.

In my short experience as a member of the Commission, I concluded that many aspects of communication—both verbal and written—had led us to the situation we are debating today. I welcome the appointment of Mr. Mawer, but it would be unacceptable if we did not learn the lessons and put them into practice pretty rapidly.

The House may recall that I questioned the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) about a proper contract of employment. I think that that is essential. I also think that the rudiments of what we would expect to find in such a contract should be accompanied by an outline, in terms, of the procedures to be followed not just when the Commissioner felt there was a need to apply for more resources, but in the event of a breakdown in communication with the Commission—either directly or through the Speaker—or when outside queries from the media and others must be handled. This is about process, not the definitive role of the commissioner in investigating individual complaints—that being part of the commissioner's remit. I believe that the last commissioner worked without that framework, which is absolutely necessary if communication is to be facilitated at all levels.

We have just had a little exchange about the way in which things go wrong when the commissioner speaks to the media—and yes, there have been complaints about a whispering campaign in the House about the last commissioner. There are procedures to resolve such problems immediately, if someone takes the trouble to think the process through and set it down. The problems will arise, owing to the nature of the job and the number of people with an interest—not least the media, who can be quite pernicious in their own pursuit of what the commissioner is up to. If the process for dealing with those problems is not properly structured and set out, and is not part of the employment contract and terms of reference given to the commissioner on appointment—or if there is no procedure for adding it to them—we shall inevitably find ourselves in the position in which we found ourselves with Mrs. Filkin. In the end, rightly or wrongly, for a variety of reasons, the commissioner lacked trust in the House and the House lacked trust in the commissioner. As an employer, it is incumbent upon the House to resolve those matters. It is incumbent upon us as employers to ensure through the Commission that we obtain good advice, if that advice is not readily to hand, so that the new commissioner's contract and terms of reference are clearly set out.

The post of commissioner is relatively new. The way in which investigations of Members of Parliament are carried out when a complaint is made is relatively new. In one or two of the more high-profile cases in the previous Parliament, the commissioner perhaps started to investigate areas that she had not investigated before. People started to say, "Is it right that she should look at that aspect of a case and that that should command more resources?" I am not going to say in a judgmental way that it was right or it was not right. All I am saying is that that matter needs to be dealt with. As and when they arise, such issues must be resolved in a timely fashion by either the commissioner or Members of Parliament.

It is a pretty simple procedure; it is not exactly rocket science. Any large organisation in the financial sector would have such a procedure in place and would be able to solve problems as they arose. We have experienced a festering over several years of many issues, all of which deserve to be addressed. However, no one took responsibility to resolve those problems.

A breakdown in communication inevitably results when a situation evolves in that way. We end up with a situation such as we had with Mrs. Filkin. When the contract came up for renewal, it was not immediately clear to many people involved exactly what the procedure was.

Peter Bottomley

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for at least slightly opening the curtains—

Mrs. Browning

I hope that I am not.

Peter Bottomley

May I put it this way? If there were thought to be problems and if the commissioner and the Commission did not meet, that is a failure of communication on the part of the employer. If the Commission did not consult the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, which is with the commissioner virtually every week, there would seem to be a slight communication problem, so my hon. Friend is right to say that lessons can be learned.

Mrs. Browning

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am shutting the curtains as quickly as I can; it was not my intention to open them. I am sharing an observation with the House as someone who has experienced these problems in another scenario. I could see how the situation had evolved.

One of the difficulties with problem solving is knowing and identifying the problem in the first place, rather than just living with what can become a festering sore, where everyone involved is disgruntled for a variety of reasons but no one takes responsibility for dealing with the situation and for solving problems as they arise.

A proper professional framework needs to be set out so that problems can be avoided in future. It is simply a matter of good practice in the management and employment of people, whether they be a parliamentary commissioner or anyone else for whom we are responsible. The House must raise its game and adopt 21st-century practices in managing its affairs, particularly in relation to employment contracts and the framework that is set out when people are employed, for which we or a Committee have responsibility. It is not acceptable for the situation just to go on and on. Someone must take responsibility.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough said that the new contract for the new commissioner is confidential. I accept that what is type-written in the contract is confidential, but I hope that it will be comprehensive and that the annexes, if not the main document—I trust that there will be annexes—will cover the proper procedures for problem resolution and for reporting back, setting out who the key people are to approach when these matters arise again, whether it be my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, or whoever. Unless that is written into the new commissioner's contract, we will go through the whole exercise again and the House will be the poorer for it. We must learn the lessons from the employment of Mrs. Filkin.

As a lay person looking in from the outside, there were times after reading the ultimate report when I did not agree with Mrs. Filkin's judgment on individual cases and other times when I did agree, but that is what happens when responsibility is devolved to someone so that they can independently take a detailed look at matters that are reported to them. That is their job. Inevitably, we are not all going to agree or disagree with the outcome of individual reports.

The Braithwaite report has been a wake-up call to the way this establishment is run. As a Parliament, we spend a lot of taxpayers' money and we are responsible for the employment of a great many people at all levels in the House. We must be as professional and as transparent in our dealings with them as we would expect them to be, and as we inevitably expect any business organisation to be outside.

5.46 pm
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Far be it from me to bring disunity to the Chamber, where unity usually reigns on occasions such as this, but the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) was not quite to my taste. To be honest, I found it unctuous. It bordered on hagiography.

What we need is what we had in Elizabeth Filkin: a rough-hewn character capable of fingering the collar of dodgy people who are self-serving and all too willing to kick up a fuss when the heat is on. As a one-time robust criminal barrister, I admired her style. Instead we will get a member of the great and the good, an establishment figure who will bed himself in as and when he can wind down his many other important activities. Personally, I doubt whether a sophisticated insider and dextrous mandarin who is capable of reading the tea leaves in this place is the sort of person we want.

Moreover, unless I am much mistaken, as that person is a Church Commissioner he must be a member of the Church of England, an organisation of which I was a member before I became an atheist. When I was in the choir, I was told that to be a good member of the Church of England, I had to eschew theology, shut down my moral faculties and demonstrate that the only principle to which I adhered was the lack of a principle. I was told that the Church of England was a Church where doubts very occasionally led to consensus. I am not sure that that is what we want in this case.

Mr. Salmond

Is atheism widespread in the Church of England these days?

Mr. Sedgemore

If I went down that line, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would pull me up, but there was a well known Bishop of Durham who was pretty close to being an atheist.

As regards Elizabeth Filkin, I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) said. A few weeks ago, I paid a heartfelt, personal tribute to Elizabeth Filkin in an article in Tribune. I shall not go through it because I know that every hon. Member reads my articles in Tribune, but I genuinely believe that she was badly treated by Members of Parliament, and on occasions badly treated by the Committee to which she gave such devoted service and, dare I say it, by the House of Commons Commission itself.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough said that Elizabeth Filkin would not give any evidence, but one would have to live in a time capsule in this place not to know that there was a whispering campaign, which on most occasions developed in front of me into a shouting campaign. All I can say is that, if the hon. Member for Middlesbrough or any member of the House of Commons Commission really believes that there was not a whispering campaign, they would not do so if they had read my article in Tribune, unless they are wholly incapable of understanding the ordinary and natural meaning of simple English words.

Furthermore—I am rather loth to say this, but given some of the stuff that we have heard, I will do so—a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee once described Elizabeth Filkin to me as "mad". Some time later—I remember the day, as will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because it was the last time that Oxford university played Cambridge university at rugby, and the only redeeming feature of that dreadful match was that Oxford university won—I rushed back here to do my House of Commons duties and a member of that Committee told me that Elizabeth Filkin had left not only a job at the Inland Revenue but a job at the London Docklands development corporation under a cloud. When I asked for more information, I was just told that "they"— the impersonal, unknown and unnamed "they"—were saying it. If that is how a member of the Committee can behave, I apologise to Elizabeth Filkin. I also apologise to her because, until I wrote my article in Tribune three weeks ago, I had not said much on the matter. I am sorry that we—and I—have let Elizabeth down.

5.51 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) is a marvellous self-publicist. I hardly dare speak because I must declare an interest as a member of the General Synod of the Church of England and as an Anglican who is not an atheist. The hon. Gentleman was having fun in his inimitable way, and I shall not follow him down some of the paths to which he pointed. However, I shall make sure that I get hold of his article in Tribune—doubtless he will send me a copy, which he will autograph, I hope—and I shall read it with great interest over the weekend. Whether I shall read it with much profit is another matter.

I want to take part briefly in this debate, but not because I want to talk about Elizabeth Filkin, whom I did not have the pleasure of knowing. I do not want to say anything detrimental about her; in fact, I am not able to say much about her at all. I am sure that she sought to discharge her duties with assiduity. As for the future, however, we must consider the way in which we appoint our commissioners. There is a lot to be said for appointing a commissioner for one term—perhaps a longer term than the present one—which would not be renewable. That would allow the commissioner to behave without fear or favour in any way.

It would probably be wise, in the light of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), to consider the issue of publicity. Perhaps every commissioner should either make a self-denying ordinance or have imposed on him or her some sort of restriction on speaking to the press about any matter. Officers of the House do not speak to the press as a matter of course and tradition. There is much to be said for that tradition. The Clerk of the House does not give comments to the press whatever advice he may give to the Speaker or anyone else.

What I really want to say stems from my membership of the General Synod. The House would make an exceptionally wise choice if it were to appoint Mr. Philip Mawer and endorse the recommendation made in a speech that was not at all as described by the rumbustious hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch—the hon. Gentleman who represents Hackney marshes. I have known Philip Mawer for a long time. I knew him when he was a civil servant, although not well, and I know that he was highly regarded in the roles that he played in the civil service. I have seen him at first hand in the General Synod, and I believe that he has clarity of thought and an analytical mind. I know that he has gentle and self-deprecating good humour. A sense of humour is terribly important in a job like the one that we are considering.

I also know that Philip Mawer has the ability to be impartial. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), who is the Second Church Estates Commissioner, talked about Church politics. I do not want to say too much about them, but I must point out to the hon. Gentleman who represents Hackney marshes that, if one can cope with Church politics, one can cope with the politics here. Church politics are at least as unscrupulous and devious as anything seen in the House of Commons.

Mr. McNamara

Speak for your own Church.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am talking about the established Church of England of which I am exceptionally proud to be a member. I do not seek to cast aspersions in the direction of Rome.

We must bring a certain humour to our debates. If one can cope, as Philip Mawer has coped, with the General Synod of the Church of England, one can cope with the House of Commons. His work has been remarkable because he has not forfeited the respect of any of the factions or groups—those on the Catholic or evangelical wings, the traditionalists or modernists—but has enhanced his reputation by the way in which he has dealt with them. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough knows that as well as I do, and I am sure that he would agree entirely with me on that point.

In the time that Mr. Mawer has been at the General Synod, he has been an exceptional public servant of outstanding quality. We are extremely fortunate that he wished to apply for the post and we owe our congratulations to all those—I played no part in this myself—who decided to choose Philip Mawer from what was a distinguished field. He has it within him to be a great servant of the House. I wish him well, and I hope that the House will endorse the recommendation before us.

5.57 pm
Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said that the events of recent months had not done the reputation of the House much good. I agree with him. We have not covered ourselves in glory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick), the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and others have mentioned the qualities of the retiring commissioner. I have spent a short time on the Standards and Privileges Committee and there can be no doubting her dedication and hard work. The machinery of the independent commissioner reporting to the Committee was very much an innovation when it was established in 1995 and it still seems to be unique among Parliaments in the world. However, as the House of Commons Commission report makes clear, Elizabeth Filkin's work has validated the position of commissioner.

The commissioner's role is a difficult one to carry out. The position was not recommended by the Nolan report, which suggested a separate investigator and adjudicator. When Lord Neill wrote to the Chairman of the Committee a couple of years ago, he said: It is a fundamental principle of procedural fairness that the functions of 'investigator' and 'adjudicator' should be carried out independently". By combining the two roles, we have imposed a heavy burden on the two commissioners who have held the post and we shall impose such a burden on the new appointee. There are various reasons why the concept of an investigating judge has been abandoned in continental countries, but the fact that such judges combine the two roles is one of them.

I want to look forward. I congratulate Mr. Mawer on his appointment. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) outlined Mr. Mawer's qualities and my hon. Friend's remarks were endorsed by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). I am sure that Mr. Mawer will be a splendid appointment.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred to the commissioner's remit, but I want to deal with that point in a slightly different way. I wish to refer to the procedures to which the commissioner should adhere.

The first stage, of course, is the receipt of a complaint. There is no need for me to tell the House that the process is used by political opponents outside to air grievances, and by journalists searching for a story. In a previous debate, I implored hon. Members—including Labour Members—not to use the process simply for political advantage. I associate myself completely with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), and with the intervention made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, on that point. Short-term political benefit can be gained by using the process, but the corrosive effects on the standing of the House are too great a danger in the long run.

Last year, the Standards and Privileges Committee's fifth report contained the assertion that it was a basic courtesy that any hon. Member making a complaint to the commissioner about another hon. Member should send a letter to the hon. Member concerned. Unfortunately, that is still not being done. If it were, it might be some deterrent to hon. Members who want to advance complaints against other hon. Members.

Even if we could choke off political expediency in this place, people outside would still use the process as a pretext to attack hon. Members. Mr. Mawer, the new commissioner, will need to adopt a robust approach to that. He will need to dispose quickly of complaints that are trivial, and of allegations that clearly do not require investigation.

The guide to the rules sets out clearly the rudiments of the process. Complaints must not be anonymous, they must be supported by evidence, and they will not normally be taken up if they are founded simply on a story in the media. If there is evidence, the commissioner has to ask the hon. Member involved to respond, and conduct a preliminary investigation. If there is no prima facie case to answer, that should be the end of the matter.

The present commissioner, Mrs. Filkin, has fleshed out those procedural points in a helpful document attached to the Committee's ninth report. Trivial complaints, or complaints that appear to have nothing to them, must be dealt with quickly and robustly. That calls for strength of character and judgment. From what has been said, it seems that Mr. Mawer has both qualities.

In its sixth report on standards in public life, the Neill committee endorsed an approach that resulted in the commissioner robustly dismissing malicious and frivolous complaints. In addition, it went on to suggest that, when an ill founded complaint receives publicity, the commissioner, with the consent of the hon. Member involved, should publicise his judgment. There is great merit in that suggestion, and I hope that the House will be able to debate the matter at some stage.

Once an inquiry begins and the thresholds are met, the commissioner must adhere to certain basic principles. They are derived from common law, and are given added force by article 6 of the European convention. Conveniently, they are also set out in the 1999 report from the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege under Lord Nicholls.

I shall isolate three of those principles. They are that there must be a prompt and clear statement of the precise allegations against the hon. Member, that there must be an adequate opportunity to take advice, and that there must be an opportunity to be heard.

The first principle is perhaps the most important. There is a great danger that an investigation can go off the rails. It is always possible for an investigator to follow a multitude of lines, to range widely over an hon. Member's affairs, and to stray into matters involving third parties for which an hon. Member has no responsibility—all in the hope that something will turn up. The length of any consequent inquiry can be unfair to the hon. Member concerned, as a cloud remains over his or her head for months.

There is therefore a need for focus, to isolate the important and to discard the trivial. The allegation must then be formulated, and put to the hon. Member involved. In most cases, the aim must be to come quickly to a conclusion. There can be no justification for keeping from the hon. Member the nature of the allegation. There is rarely a justification for keeping from the hon. Member involved the evidence on which an allegation is based.

I come now to the standard of proof that the commissioner, Mr. Mawer, must apply. I do not think that there is any controversy about that now. The Nicholls committee said that the standard was the balance of probabilities, but that a higher standard of proof might be appropriate in serious cases. The first commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey, adopted that approach, although he did not use legal terminology. The approach has now been endorsed by the Committee itself. Cogent evidence is needed to support an allegation. Where reputation is involved, especially cogent evidence is needed in the balance.

I shall say a few words about third parties. People associated with hon. Members will be affected by the commissioner's work. Spouses of MPs, for example, know that MPs have to register some of their property interests. Moreover, the commissioner will sometimes need to interview third parties in the course of an inquiry to obtain information. In the end, however, only hon. Members are answerable to the House, and only they are subject to the mandatory jurisdiction of the commissioner.

The corollary of that is that the commissioner has to be sensitive to the position of third parties. For example, spouses may have their own careers. If they are doctors, lawyers, journalists, business people or whatever, they will have duties towards other people. Such duties could include duties of confidentiality, which would mean that they could not assist the commissioner. It is MPs who have duties to this House, not other people. It seems to me that it will be very rare for the commissioner to make adverse comments—let alone reach adverse findings—about third parties in his reports.

In some cases, of course, where documentary evidence is not available, the commissioner may have to rely on oral evidence, which may come from third parties. If the commissioner accepted that evidence, no adverse comment would be made. However, if the commissioner did not accept the evidence of third parties, he could avoid making adverse comments in most cases and simply accept the persuasive evidence.

I believe that it is unnecessary in almost all cases to comment adversely on third parties. After all, the commissioner's report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges is protected by parliamentary privilege. That should not be a cloak for adverse comments on third parties in most cases.

Mr. Tyler

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman address the particular problem that can arise when the hon. Member who is the subject of an investigation decides to bring with him a legal representative? That legal representative may feel that his primary duty is to his client. We have found ourselves in some difficult situations when that has happened.

I was a member of the Joint Committee to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred. We found that, when hon. Members come before their colleagues and peers in a Committee with legal representation, that can cause difficult problems. I appreciate that the hon. and learned Gentleman has considerable legal experience, and perhaps he will be able to comment from both points of view.

Ross Cranston

In most cases, hon. Members will not need to consult lawyers. If an hon. Member answers truthfully the questions put by the commissioner, the case will be disposed of easily, without lawyers. However, as the Joint Committee suggested, hon. Members should have the right to go to lawyers if that is what they want. I do not think that that is necessary in the vast majority of cases, but the right should still exist.

I shall speak briefly about privacy. Hon. Members forfeit much of their privacy when they enter public life. For a start, their financial interests have to be registered, but their behaviour is also a matter for constant scrutiny—by other hon. Members, the press, their constituents and the public in general. Anonymity goes by the board in much of their daily lives, but hon. Members should still be entitled to what I would call a zone of privacy, as long as they do not forfeit that right through their behaviour.

Matters that are not relevant to hon. Members' performance in the job include their family, their relationships with parents, their partners and children, their sexual predilections, and—a theme that arose earlier in the debate—their religious beliefs. Hon. Members are entitled to privacy in those and related matters, unless, as I said, they put those matters into the public arena.

Mr. Mawer must respect that zone of privacy. Members are under a duty to co-operate with him: they must answer his questions and provide him with information. The other side of the coin is that the commissioner must respect a Member's privacy. In most instances, of course, this issue is subsumed by my earlier point about relevance. Rarely will those aspects of the zone of privacy, as I have described it, be relevant to an inquiry. Even if they were, the commissioner should hesitate before intruding.

There have been various references to the press. As I have been provoked into saying something about this, my advice to the commissioner would be "Don't talk to the press." My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire took that line. There is no need for the commissioner to confirm or deny that an inquiry is under way. Contacts with the press could lead to allegations of leaking and manipulation. My advice to Mr. Mawer would be "Don't talk to the press. Ultimately, if there is a report, what you say will be public. You stand or fall by that report."

On the statute of limitations, the first commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey, in his valedictory report, said: I think there is a risk of a `tit-for-tat' war breaking out in which Members search old records and debates for evidence of possible rule breaches. He suggested having a seven-year cut-off point. That was endorsed by the Committee in its 19th report, subject to the proviso that the commissioner should be able to go back beyond that point, after consulting the Committee in serious cases. Mr. Mawer should use that seven-year period of limitations. Sir Gordon also alluded to the trawling through of reports and associated documents to launch fresh complaints. As well as a statute of limitations, Mr. Mawer should adopt a fresh evidence rule. It would mean that, if evidence was available at the time of the original inquiry, it should not be used to found a new inquiry.

Too often we fail to recognise how fortunate we are in our public servants. Few countries can match ours in the dedication and integrity of its public servants and the skill and independence of its judiciary. That is not an excuse for complacency; it is not a defence of the status quo. We cannot take our reputation in this House for granted. That is why there is a very heavy burden on the shoulders of the new commissioner. But in our public life there is virtually no major misconduct, and we should be very proud of that.

6.13 pm
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I am pleased to follow the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston). I thought that some of his structural points about the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards were very important, although he is totally unrealistic in his view of what is possible with the press.

I agree with the hon. Members for Walsall, North (David Winnick), for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) in their analysis of the situation. Some other Members are in a state of denial about what has happened. The House of Commons has, collectively, engaged in the political assassination of its Standards Commissioner—that is what she believes has happened; she believes she has been undermined. She believes that she was a turbulent Standards Commissioner who was got rid of. What is more, the overwhelming majority of the public believe that Elizabeth Filkin is to be no more because she was ferreting out things without fear or favour. Right hon. or hon. Members, on the Front or Back Benches, who do not appreciate how that adds to the cynicism about politics are living in a different political world from me. There is a seam of discontent about the events of the past few months, which may not be widespread in this place because many Members, to their discredit, take very little interest in this.

At business questions, the Leader of the House is fond of dismissing the number of signatories—49—to the early-day motion that the hon. Member for Worthing, West tabled expressing confidence in Mrs. Filkin. Thirty Labour Members of Parliament signed it, as did five Conservatives, nine Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru Members, three Liberal Democrats, one independent and one Member of the Social Democratic and Labour party. It did not include the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, so I suspect that the list is not exclusive. Those Members and others feel a deep discontent and anxiety about what has happened to the present Standards Commissioner.

I have never met Elizabeth Filkin; I have never phoned her, had a postcard or sent her a letter. That is probably the best position to be in—it may even be a fortunate position, all things considered, because I have no axe to grind. However, I have read her reports, which have been meticulous and closely argued. They seem to be properly based and I have detected no political axe-grinding in them. Why, given the excellence with which the representative of the House of Commons Commission told us that she had conducted affairs, has it come to pass that she has, in effect, been constructively dismissed? That is what has happened to one of our employees. Members talk in employment debates about employees' rights, legal protection and European statutes, yet one of our most important employees—the one with the most difficult job of all in regulating us—has been undermined in a despicable fashion.

Structural points might lead to such a situation, almost regardless of who is in post; indeed, the better the person employed, the more likely they are to lead to that situation. The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch obviously knows Elizabeth Filkin much better than I do. I liked his description of her as being prepared to search for the truth without fear or favour, no matter whose toes she trampled on. Surely that is exactly the sort of person we want in the job.

We have a hybrid system that cannot work. The hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North referred to separating the investigative role from the adjudication role. We have lumped the two roles together. We then have a second-guess system of self-regulation in the Committee on Standards and Privileges and, possibly, a third-guess system on the Floor of the House.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has issued a report in which she upholds, in meticulous detail, four complaints against a current Minister of the Crown. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has decided today, in six brief paragraphs, to take no action. I do not think that a system in which we appoint an independent Standards Commissioner, or at least one who is meant to be independent and then have a second-guess system of self-regulation, can possibly be sustained. We must go for one or the other. We can adopt an independent system of regulation with a Standards Commissioner reporting, perhaps, to the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. When that idea was mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Walsall, North, the Leader of the House gave one of his characteristic scoffs. Independent regulation would mean having someone who was genuinely independent and responsible outwith the procedures and processes of this House. If we want self-regulation, we had better understand that it will always be open to the accusation that the Committee matches the make-up of the House, and some people will believe, rightly or wrongly—but, given the events of last few months, probably rightly—that certain people will receive different treatment from certain other people. That will be the perception.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster

If one party has been running the show, how does the hon. Gentleman account for the fact that every report has been unanimous?

Mr. Salmond

That is not the point I was making, as the hon. Member for Worthing, West, a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, helpfully points out from a sedentary position. We have a system of self-regulation under which the Committee, like all others in this place, is appointed by the usual channels. That leads to the perception that the system of self-regulation is subject to political influences. All these people, regardless of how honourable they are and how diligently they carry out their duties, are none the less politicians regulating other politicians. It is impossible for people wholly to remove themselves from the political process when they are active politicians. In an earlier speech, we were told of an unguarded remark made by a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee about the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I do not know whether that is true, but I trust the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. That example shows exactly the failings of any system of self-regulation. Most such systems—wherever in public life they may be—are open to challenge; they are certainly open to considerable scepticism.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made an excellent point about tenure: whoever is appointed, under whatever system, should be appointed for one term only. I suggest that a term of 10 years would be appropriate. There should be no question of reappointment. There would thus be no pressure to reappoint—whether such pressure is perceived or real.

The person should be released from the post due only to complete incompetence or—

Peter Bottomley


Mr. Salmond

Indeed. Death or taxes: that should be the only way out of the post. Whoever is appointed should be wholly free from any pressure—real or apparent—to obtain a second term, to which they may be subjected or which is suggested by their employers. The confusion over whether the commissioner was being offered a three-day or a five-day week or whether she was to be paid for work that she had done—when someone has, in effect, to apply to get her own job back although there is no good reason for her not to be reappointed—shows how unsatisfactory the position is. A one-term appointment would free the commissioner from any possible pressure.

If the House of Commons Commission and the commissioner continue with their present responsibilities, surely the Speaker should not continue as Chair of the Commission. Some of us have greatly admired the Speaker's independence and the strength of his rulings recently. We believe that he requires support throughout the House—especially from Back Benchers—to uphold those rulings. However, we find ourselves in difficulty in this debate. We are in a debate with the House of Commons Commission, chaired by the Speaker whom we greatly admire but who cannot take part in the debate. It seems completely wrong that the Commission is not properly answerable to the House—through the Chairman or whoever—on decisions that the Commission has or has not made.

I repeat that it is disgraceful that the first real opportunity that we have had to debate what happened to our current commissioner is during our discussion of the appointment of the next standards commissioner. If there were valid complaints about the way in which Mrs. Filkin conducted her duties, they should have been brought to the Floor of the House through the Commission and debated in the open—in the light; they should not have been the subject of a whispering campaign in the dark, demeaning her character and abilities.

I have no knowledge either of Mrs. Filkin or of Mr. Mawer. I am sure that he is a true believer of the Church of England—unlike other people whose views may be more transitional. I am told that the rough house of Church of England politics will have prepared him for his role as Standards Commissioner. I must accept that.

However, I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch: Mr. Mawer will suffer from two big disadvantages. The first is that he will be seen as an establishment candidate—as one of the chaps who knows the game and has been brought in as a contrast to his predecessor, who was outside the establishment and thus extremely difficult. Secondly, the circumstances in which Mr. Mawer's predecessor fell will surely overshadow his ability to do his job.

I wish the new commissioner well. I hope that he does well, but he arrives in especially difficult circumstances and, unless they are properly addressed, the same situation may be replayed time after time. If someone does the job too conscientiously, it will seem that they were got rid of because they were inconvenient to people in this place.

I have one more point about the Commission. When hon. Members have raised this issue at business questions—especially the hon. Member for Worthing, West, but also other hon. Members—they have been barracked by the shadow Leader of the House. I have never seen such strength of solidarity and support—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House does not seem to agree. There is something unhealthy about a political system where the Members of the Front Benches were so arm in arm—the Liberals were not much better—about getting rid of that independent regulator—[Interruption.] I certainly was not part of that cosy conspiracy at the Dispatch Box—thank goodness for that.

In summary, Mrs. Elizabeth Filkin has, to use an old-fashioned term, been wronged by this House. Those who did that wrong should be ashamed. They should be ashamed of what they did, but especially of the manner in which they did it. They acted behind the scenes, behind the Chair and in the dark—rather than in full debate and in the light, where the real issues could be addressed.

6.25 pm
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

I became a Member of the House nearly five years ago and was enormously honoured to be made a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee almost immediately.

I entered the House with a perception that the whole place was sleaze-ridden. I thought that one had to keep one's hands in one's pocket and to keep hold of one's wallet, whereas in fact this is an amazingly honest place. Across the board, the politicians whom I meet are extremely honest, but very occasionally some of them break the rules.

At present—after the three years during which our commissioner has been in place—people believe that this place is more sleaze-ridden than ever; yet during the past few years, there has been no money in brown envelopes. We have not experienced the problems that occurred in the past. There has been no cash for questions. Certainly, there have been some breaches of the regulations—often technical breaches. In relation to our earlier debate, it is worth noting that both the two substantial offences of which my hon. Friend Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) was found guilty—among the 11 with which he was charged—involved regulatory issues that occurred many years ago. That was all. There were, of course, serious matters and the House took the right decision about what should happen to that Member.

However, those issues were not sleaze—at least not according to my definition. My definition of sleaze is when one uses one's public office for private gain. If any hon. Member can think of an example of that during the past few years I should be interested to hear it, because there have been no such cases. The behaviour of hon. Members has indeed been honourable. That is why I am so sad that, as I enter my second term as a Member, my constituents—like those of many hon. Members—believe that we are not honourable and honest. That upsets me.

It upsets me when a public servant gives the impression that we are not honest and honourable. That is why I do not support the reappointment of Elizabeth Filkin. It is not because she lacks integrity: she is one of the women of the greatest integrity whom I have ever met. She is indeed a woman of independence—there is no doubt about that—but the job of the Standards Commissioner is to instil confidence about the House here and in the outside world as well: the outside world must be confident that the commissioner is doing a good job and Members must be confident that they are being treated fairly. If they do not believe that, they will not co-operate with the system. That is the nub of the matter.

Under Sir Gordon Downey, there was no such criticism as we have heard recently. During the first two years of my membership of the Committee, there were differences of opinion with Sir Gordon on some occasions, but the Committee did not disagree with the logic of the commissioner's reports as often as it has done in recent years. That disagreement is regarded as a debit for the Committee, but if the current system is to operate it is surely right that the Committee should not second-guess the arguments and evidence against Members; it should analyse them and consider them judicially.

Let us consider the report that was published this morning in which—as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) pointed out—the Committee, yet again, took a different view from the commissioner. The House should study that report and read what the commissioner said. She said that people should account for money that had been properly paid to them—thus, if someone charged a rent, the cash they received would be an improper use of public funds. That so defeats logic that one understands why some Members get upset.

I repeat that I do not doubt Mrs. Filkin's integrity, but I do question her judgment and ability to meet the evidential requirements and thus to reach fair decisions in many cases. With that in mind, the Commission was absolutely right to see whether we could do better. The decision was no more than that. It was not an unfair dismissal, but a decision not to reappoint someone to a post with a fixed-term contract. I have some experience of employment law and, assuming that the contract contained such a provision, failure to reappoint would not constitute unfair or constructive dismissal. None of us has seen that contract, so none of us knows the answer to that question, but that is another issue.

In discussing Mrs. Filkin, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) suggested that we should have a grievance procedure. Happily, we will have such a procedure, because the Employment Bill that the House passed last night provides that it be included in employment contracts as an implied term. Unhappily, the Opposition opposed it, even so, it is an important procedure that should be not merely implied but expressed in the new commissioner's contract. That would avoid many of the problems that we have experienced.

Sir Gordon Downey said just a week or two ago that the behaviour of Members in respect of their interests has improved enormously in the past three or four years. I agree, but I would extend that to the past five years. Why, therefore, does the perception of sleaze and wrongdoing remain? One reason—I am sorry to repeat the point—is the commissioner's readiness in the past three years to take on complaints of little substance.

Of course, we are also at fault, because most complaints are brought by Members against other Members not for quasi-judicial reasons but for political purposes. That is wrong, and when such complaints are found to be spurious, Members should be shown the red card for falsely complaining, rather like soccer players who throw themselves to the ground in the penalty area. There should be some form of sanction when wholly unjustified complaints are made. Having said that, we do not want to discourage people from bringing proper complaints. It is a difficult line to draw.

I agree with those Members who said that self-regulation is a difficult issue, because I am not at all sure that we can ever be trusted by the public. People do not trust us to look after our own affairs.

Moreover, the Select Committee process is perhaps not the best method of self-regulation or any other form of regulation. Although the Select Committee is skilfully managed by a distinguished Chairman, such Committees are an inappropriate substitute for a judicial body. The media will always think ill of Members of Parliament, which is a cross that we must bear. When the commissioner presents a report, it becomes public property, and nothing that the House or its Committees subsequently say is of much value. The press pick up on the commissioner's comments, rather than ours, because they want to think ill of us.

The Select Committee process is the problem. Select Committees' main objective is to reach unanimity, but unanimity is not always justice. They compromise and fudge—in one direction or another—and look for a middle way that is acceptable to everybody, but that does not always mete out justice to a given Member. For that reason, I am not at all certain that that is the best way to proceed.

If we are to proceed with the current system, if we are to look after our own affairs and if we are to instil confidence not only in the public but in Members so that they co-operate and so that there is no repeat of this afternoon's tragedy whereby someone took against the investigator and behaved so wrongly that we had to reach such a decision, we must consider the rules. We need procedural rules that are unambiguous and certain, which, perhaps, is our next task. I agree absolutely with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston), who clearly set out many of the requirements for achieving that objective.

In a nutshell, if we are to operate such a system, allegations must be clearly put, including references to the alleged breach of rules—not simply a letter setting out some generality, but the actual fact and the actual breach, rather like a charge sheet for a Member. That is what is required.

Members must thus be given the evidence on which a complaint is presented so that they can challenge or agree to it as the case may be. They must always have the last word—the opportunity to answer the charge—but I fear that that has not happened over recent years. There has been a fudge, with suggestions being made and considered, and new charges arising part way through the process.

That is not justice. If we want to achieve justice, not only for society, which is most important, but for Members, we must acknowledge that they have rights too. I believe and very much hope that the new commissioner will help us to achieve that objective.

6.36 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of our Committee, who has been extremely skilful in difficult circumstances. I also congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston), who made most of the points that I wanted to make, but far more eloquently and succinctly than I could. As a result, I shall not keep the House until 10 o'clock, or even later—a motion would allow us to continue beyond that hour—but I must make a number of points.

First, there is a misapprehension in the House and, I believe, in the media, over the way in which the system works. The commissioner's report goes to the Committee, but it is the Committee's report that matters to the House. Hon. Members can obviously read the commissioner's report and then decide whether they think the Committee's report is proper, accurate and fair, but we discuss our report and our decision. That ought to be borne in mind.

People do not understand the process properly, and I must disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster). I do not believe that natural justice was in some way overthrown in the case to which he referred—not at all. In fact, my opinion remains that the commissioner and the Committee bent over backwards to ensure that our hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) had every opportunity to present his case, produce his solicitors and have opinions from learned counsel. The Shakespearean tragedy of all this is that the person who hanged himself today is my hon. Friend, by virtue of his conduct.

As has been rightly said, of 11 charges, eight were not upheld, two were minor and one represented a slap on the wrist. However, my hon. Friend's attitude, partly to the commissioner, but mostly regarding alleged telephone calls, caused his downfall. I urge colleagues to read the whole report very carefully, if they have time. If they do not, they should read the section on Mapesbury Communications—a company established for the benefit of our colleague of which his mother-in-law and then his mother were secretary. The sole director was his wife. Moneys were used to buy a car for his mother, as company secretary.

Our hon. Friend said that he knew nothing of the workings of that company, and the Committee said, with all charity, that that was a little odd. However, we upheld what the commissioner said because all the evidence on which we could have pursued that matter further had mysteriously disappeared. The charge could not be upheld for lack of evidence, not because there was no trail to follow, as has perhaps been suggested. The trail went cold for lack of evidence.

On the telephone calls, I refer colleagues to the appendix, which contains the full text of the letter from the chief inspector of Leicestershire police. The report contains only part of that letter, which states the serious charges that the police considered they might bring against my hon. Friend. They then decided that he was seeking to undermine our system and therefore that it should be left to us to decide what should happen to him. The charges were very serious indeed.

Although I agree with what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North said about third parties, the Committee was scrupulous with regard to third parties in that report. We dealt only with our colleague, not with other individuals about whom we might have formed opinions that we decided not to express. We were dealing with our colleague, not with the third parties. Sometimes, colleagues can drag in third parties in all sorts of ways and their reputations have to be defended—we had to defend some third parties in our report. This is a serious matter. It was most unpleasant sitting in judgment on a colleague.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) said that he felt the commissioner had been badly treated by the Committee. I have served on the Committee in only this Parliament, and I must say that there were differences of opinion, but there was respect for the commissioner and an understanding of her position in arguing points and reaching decisions. Different conclusions were reached without blazing rows or anything of that nature, and we carefully explained why we disagreed. That is precisely how we reached decisions.

David Winnick

From my hon. Friend's experience of serving on the Committee—limited though it is—does he think that our hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) is in any way correct to suggest that the parliamentary commissioner should lose her job because she has been over-zealous? In his experience, has the parliamentary commissioner done anything that a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should not have done?

Mr. McNamara

I shall come to that in a moment. I shall refer to the allegation that the parliamentary commissioner was badly treated by the Committee, and I shall deal with my attitude towards Mrs. Filkin. I found her to be intellectually hard and very careful in her use of words. She bent over backwards to be fair and to give the benefit of the doubt when she could. In fact, the Committee felt that she had not been hard enough on one occasion, and we reconsidered the evidence on one of the accusations. We upheld her decision not to proceed further on that matter. That is an example of the Committee disagreeing with the commissioner. I found her tough, intellectual and uncompromising in terms of what she felt her proper role involved. The way that the rules were laid down may be criticised, but I felt that she was absolutely straight and upright in upholding them. I found no reason why we should throw stones at her.

On the points that other colleagues have made, when some people knew that I had been appointed to the Committee, they muttered, "Oh, that Filkin woman." How much of that was deliberately stirred up by colleagues who were subject to her inquiries only they know. Some of them may feel that, in some way or another, they have obtained a victory in her dismissal. If they think that, I feel sad for them because they have let down the House of Commons.

The parliamentary commissioner had an almost impossible job—she had to police the standards and ensure that they were upheld by some of the most self-opinionated people in the country, barring only the members of the senior judiciary. I thought that she carried out her task remarkably well, but I know that there were those mutterings and explosions. Some colleagues said that other colleagues were badly treated when they had not even read the reports or looked at the evidence on which the decisions were made. That is a criticism of us, not of the commissioner. I hope that her new job is as challenging, but that she has more support and understanding than she has achieved here.

I want to turn to the role of the House of Commons Commission. It did not completely follow the rules on establishing such posts, as laid down by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and it came in late. Only later did the Commission involve the Chairman of the Committee. Although I accept that all hon. Members are equal in such matters, we, as members of the Committee, are more closely and intimately affected than others. However, at no time did the Commission officially—or even unofficially, so far as I know—approach the Committee to ask for our impression of the way in which the parliamentary commissioner was undertaking her role. Given what has been said this evening, hon. Members know that opinions would have differed. The least that the Commission could have done was to approach the Committee and ask, "What do you think of the commissioner's behaviour?" That was not done, and that important matter has to be examined by the Commission in future.

The fact that the Committee was not shown two audited reports on the work of the commissioner and her office—even now it has not been shown those reports—delayed things until after the recommendation to appoint the new commissioner and the virtual dismissal of the current one. The Commission behaved disgracefully in not letting the Committee know what was going on and what the problems were. I presume that it did not want us to see those reports because they showed that the commissioner was overworked and doing a good job, as were her staff. That is absolutely disgraceful.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) referred to tenure. One of the tasks that the House has given me is membership of our delegation to the Council of Europe. I am the Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee—European matters are all very complicated—that recommends to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe whom we think it should elect, from a list of three people submitted by countries, to be a member of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. It is in some ways one of the most onerous jobs that I have had in my life. Although those judges were originally part-time, they were appointed for a nine-year term. With the reorganisation of the court a few years ago, they were appointed for fixed terms. Under the new system, half of them, chosen by lot, will retire after three years to be replaced by others for successive six-year terms.

That system seems extremely fair, but we found some shortcomings. First, we found that in some cases, sitting judges were not reappointed, or not included on their country's shortlist, for a variety of reasons. It might have been for political reasons, because they had given or supported judgments that the home country did not like, or because their face did not fit, although they were competent judges. There was interference in that way, as there might have been on the matter that we are discussing tonight.

Secondly, we noted that some of the judges who were coming up for re-selection found it necessary to spend time at home, ensuring that their colleagues there appreciated the need for them to be on the bench in Strasbourg. To many people with judicial minds—like politicians' minds—what happened yesterday is quickly forgotten, and the judges had to remind their colleagues of who they were and why they were there.

The system was unsatisfactory. There were threats to the independence of the judges. Judges were in danger of corrupting themselves in the way that they went about seeking re-selection, and the factors influencing re-selection meant that the system did not work efficiently, which was a problem.

We shall be in a much better position if we appoint a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for a period of, let us say, nine or 10 years, knowing that they will not be reappointed at the end of the term, knowing that they will be independent, and knowing that the means exist to get rid of them if they shoot their wife or run off with the Treasury—lalthough they will not get away with much gold if my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer keeps going on in the way that he is. In other words, the commissioner could be got rid of for malfeasance, but not for making unpopular judgments or for ruffling the defendant. We would be in a much better position if we adopted that arrangement; for starters, we would not have debates such as this so frequently.

If we take that course, we shall know when the commissioner is due to leave office, and we should be able to appoint a new one well enough in advance to enable them to learn the ropes before assuming the post. At present, the newly appointed commissioner is supposed to attend for perhaps one day a week for the first month, and after that perhaps two days a week, then perhaps three days a week and then—if he finds the job as difficult as it is—four or five days a week. However, given the work load that the Audit Commission found, it is nonsensical to appoint someone who has to wind up his present contract, fine, splendid, pure, upright and hardworking as the man is. I do not know the gentleman and I wish him well in his job, but I believe that we could think about some of these matters more seriously.

I shall now mention legal advice. I sometimes wonder to what degree legal advice and opinions from learned counsel are introduced deliberately to waste time—to produce red herrings or further matters to be investigated, just in case the Committee could be accused of being unfair. Colleagues obviously must have that right but, in their own interests, it should be used sparingly.

Peter Bottomley

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to say that we should advise people to look at the report that was published today, in which the Member facing a complaint spoke to the commissioner and sorted things out? The commissioner thought that there was no need to go any further. There were further complaints; they were looked at. A report came to the Committee. I would argue that the Committee, by my reading—it is an agreed report, although what it says may not be agreed—agreed with the commissioner, in a sense, on three of the main issues, but also agreed that no further action was needed. In that case, legal advice did not come in. The whole process took very little time. It has been fair and open, and that surely is the best advice to others.

Mr. McNamara

Oh yes. I agree with that entirely.

The last point that I want to address is the strange description of "rough-hewn", which I think was used by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney—

Mr. Sedgemore

Hackney marshes.

Mr. McNamara

I must say that I found that rather a strange phrase to use about the elegant commissioner that we have at present. If it meant that she was tough-minded and would stand no nonsense, I would accept that, but I always found her—in my dealings with her and from observing her with other members of the Committee—ever courteous, ever helpful, ever prepared to listen, and ever ready to argue her point, but willing to concede gracefully when the Committee decided differently.

6.55 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I declare an interest, in that I was for some time a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I am a member of the House of Commons Commission and I was a member of the board that conducted the preliminary interviews for the position that the House is considering. In that sense, I am in this up to my eyeballs. The House should be aware of that, and can take account of it in respect of anything that I might now say.

Having said that, I have no hesitation in recommending Mr. Philip Mawer to the House because I had the privilege of being involved in interviewing him, among many other people of very high quality, not just once but twice. My view was—happily, this was the way that events turned out—that he was the best qualified of a very high-quality field of candidates.

It partly answers some of what was said in the debate that, when the post was advertised, there was no lack of high-quality applicants who, although they knew the context, still came forward because they felt that the role was challenging and demanding, because they had a sense of duty and because they wanted to play their part in maintaining the reputation of the parliamentary process and of the House. The House can therefore feel confident that this candidate will serve it extremely well if, as I hope, we agree to his appointment.

However, we must recognize—it was made clear to Mr. Mawer, as it was to the other candidates—that the position of commissioner is not an easy one, as became patently obvious during the debate. There has been no attempt to conceal it. We all know, not least from the debate, that the commissioner has to maintain a relationship with the Standards and Privileges Committee, of course; with the House of Commons Commission, although that relationship is, of necessity and rightly, much diminished after the appointment; with Mr. Speaker, of course, because of his position in the House; and with the Clerk of the House under some circumstances. I addition to all that, the commissioner must have a relationship with 655 Members of Parliament.

Peter Bottomley

What about the other four?

Mr. Forth

I thought that some clever colleague would ask me about the other four. I deliberately excluded Mr. Speaker and the Deputy Speakers. Strictly speaking, I perhaps should not have but I would be crazy not to in this circumstance. My point, Madam Deputy Speaker, is that maintaining a relationship with the entirety of the membership of the House is a key part of the job and responsibility of the commissioner, and one of the most difficult parts. It is on that ground, among others, that we must satisfy ourselves. Worse, the commissioner then has to maintain independence and integrity and at the same time be a servant of the House. That is a very difficult duty to maintain with credibility.

I am confident, however, that Mr. Philip Mawer has the experience and the capability to fulfil those very demanding requirements and maintain the confidence of Members and the public at large. I believe that he is fully capable of doing so and I commend him to the House.

6.59 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

The House will be aware that I have put my name to the motion. At the risk of scandalising the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), I fully support what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said in commending Mr. Mawer.

The House was fortunate to have a good field of candidates for the post. When it was advertised, some members of the press said that no one of calibre would apply. Indeed, one feature writer who said that himself went on to apply. The press were wholly wrong, as they so often are. The candidates were drawn from a wide field. I think that I speak for the Commission when I say that any of the three on the final short list could do the job with distinction and success. It is an even greater tribute to Mr. Mawer that he was successful in such a strong field.

It is also a tribute to Mr. Mawer that no hon. Member who regretted the departure of Mrs. Filkin expressed regret at the arrival of Philip Mawer. The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) spoke highly of him. On that point at least we can agree. I cannot promise to rise to the hagiography that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) accorded Mrs. Filkin, but Mr. Mawer certainly has the qualities of integrity, impartiality, tenacity and discretion that are needed for the job.

I defer to my hon. Friend for his superior knowledge of the Church of England, but from my study of 19th century literature I believe that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is correct in saying that the Church is not without politics and intrigue. Handling the senior post that Mr. Mawer occupied must have required tact, skill and toughness. He also served with distinction at the Home Office where he undertook tough and demanding tasks, such as acting as the secretary and writer of the Scarman report on the Brixton riots. I am confident that he brings to the post the qualities that we need and experience that has prepared him for the role of commissioner.

It is important to underline what my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) said: the process of appointment was scrupulous. In the early stages, we sought the advice and support of one of my predecessors, Lord Newton, and Sir Gordon Downey, a former Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Throughout all stages of the process, we were observed by an independent assessor, Mrs. Sheila Drew-Smith, who was appointed by the Commission for Public Appointments. She also attended the final hearing, at the end of which she said—I wrote down her comment—that the process had been as robust as we can make it. The Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee joined us as a full voting member when we made the final choice from the shortlist of three, and he fully supported our choice at the end of the hearing. No matter what other opinions hon. Members may have, it is not possible to fault the process by which we produced the man who I believe is an excellent candidate for the post.

The arrival of the new commissioner is an opportunity for us all to look to the future of the system and the way in which the post's duties are carried out.

Mr. Salmond

No one suggested that the process of appointment of the new commissioner was not scrupulous. Some hon. Members suggested, however, that the effective removal of the previous commissioner was less than scrupulous. Having heard the views expressed in the debate, does the Leader of the House regret anything that he has or has not done as part of his role in the House of Commons Commission in the past few months, given the circumstances under which Elizabeth Filkin left office?

Mr. Cook

Not in the slightest. I have done nothing of which to be ashamed, nothing that I am not prepared to defend, and nothing that I have any cause to regret. I believe that Mr. Mawer will command the confidence of the House. In a year or two, we will look back on what we did tonight and regard it as the correct decision.

David Winnick

Would it not have been better for the House of Commons Commission to initiate a debate on why Elizabeth Filkin was not to have her contract renewed? This debate is about the new appointment, and we all wish Mr. Mawer well, but many of us are clearly unhappy about the way in which Mrs. Filkin is leaving our service.

Mr. Cook

Let us be clear about this: Mrs. Filkin is leaving our service because she chose not to put herself forward in open competition for the post. Throughout the process, I have been careful to ensure that my appreciation of her qualities is placed on the record. It is strange that those who purport to be her champions are the ones who keep pressing for a debate to explore her merits for the post. I am content to echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said. I commend Mrs. Filkin for her assiduity, determination and meticulousness and, with those words, the House should draw a line under the matter.

There are aspects of the system that the House should consider for the future, one of which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston). Hon. Members require protection against the malicious representation of them being under investigation even when there is nothing of substance to investigate. Their reputation is important not just to their political careers, but to their standing in their community. We must not expose them to the meretricious publicity of being under investigation when no inquiry has been launched or is likely to produce a substantial result.

As Leader of the House, I would welcome the Standards and Privileges Committee's considering how to give greater clarity to the distinction between a complaint having been made and an investigation having been launched. I was much attracted to the formula that Sir Gordon Downey articulated on the radio last year. He said that he never initiated an investigation until he was satisfied that there was a prima facie case to be answered. Until we reach that stage, all Members are entitled to privacy and protection against fabricated claims that they are under investigation because of complaints without substance.

Peter Bottomley

One of the advantages of the system that the House instituted by establishing the commissioner and the Standards and Privileges Committee is that we can now take matters further. Newspaper used to attack a Member who had no way in which to get the claim investigated. We should remember that such a case would have received publicity anyway. Having a commissioner who looks into an allegation and who does not take an investigation further gives a Member greater protection than not having the system at all.

Mr. Cook

I am not suggesting that we dismantle the system, but we should protect ourselves against malicious complaints that result in headlines that a Member is under investigation. We can protect ourselves against that without dismantling the system.

Our system of self-regulation has been criticised. It is important that we restore public faith and confidence in it. Today we accepted a report by the Standards and Privileges Committee. We debated the report promptly and expeditiously, and its findings were accepted unanimously. The vigour, severity and unanimity with which we carry through the process of self-regulation compares favourably with other cases of self-regulation. We are more likely to pursue our self-regulation with greater rigour and with the unanimous support of our Members than, possibly, the press do with the Press Complaints Commission.

This is Ash Wednesday and an appropriate day on which to approach the debate in a spirit of penitence and critical self-examination. It is vital that we have robust and frank procedures to call to account those Members who let down the standards of the House. We also should ensure that we and, if possible, the press retain a sense of proportion. As Leader of the House, I am distressed that the occasional lapse by a few Members is sometimes written up as if it is representative of the House as a whole. That is false. Most complaints to the Standards and Privileges Committee are not upheld. Most hon. Members come to the House with a genuine commitment to serve their constituents and their political beliefs. Some of those beliefs are entirely wrong-headed, but I respect the sincerity and integrity with which all hon. Members bring their beliefs and commitment to the House. In my view, the House is as clean as any other representative parliamentary democracy. We should not be ashamed of saying so and should take every possible step to ensure that our systems advertise that to our public, our constituents and even to our press. That is why it is of the greatest importance that we have in place mechanisms to maintain our standards and enforce our code of conduct.

I believe that Mr. Mawer will win the confidence of the House for his discretion. Even more important, I believe that he will win the confidence of the public that he will conduct his job with vigour and without fear of, or favour to, any Member. Since becoming Leader, I have frequently said to the House that I believe in the scrutiny of Government because good scrutiny makes for good Government. I believe also that good scrutiny of standards makes for a good Parliament. I believe that Mr. Mawer will be a good scrutineer, and in that spirit I commend him to the House.

7.10 pm
Mr. Bell

I should like to make a few points about the debate.

First, I want to answer a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) about Elizabeth Filkin's extra day's work. I have been informed by the Director of Finance and Administration that arrangements have been made to pay Mrs. Filkin for all the days that she has worked and for annual leave that she has not taken. I hope that answers my hon. Friend's question.

It seems a long time since we heard from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). He said that he thought that Sir Nigel Wicks and his committee ought to review the commissioner's role or his appointment. We welcome any inquiries made by Sir Nigel Wicks and his review of the procedures of the House. I simply add that the House is master and mistress of its own affairs, and it is for the House to decide whether it wishes to alter the present status.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the duties that the new nominee will have if he is appointed. He spoke of linesmen and referees. I simply say that if Mr. Mawer is appointed by the House tonight, he expects to begin work from the beginning of March. Initially, this will be for one or two days a week, since the House will understand that it will take him a little while to relinquish all his present responsibilities, but he will increase his commitment as quickly as he can. Strictly speaking, Mr. Mawer should have given six months' notice to the Church of England, but recognising the importance of this role, the Church is allowing him to leave sooner. Mr. Mawer therefore expects to work up to three days a week by May. He has said: I will do what the job requires and adjust my working life accordingly". My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) made a very eloquent declaration of the merits and qualities of Mrs. Elizabeth Filkin. I have to repeat what has been said by other members of the Commission and by right hon. and hon. Members of the House: the Commission has valued Mrs. Filkin's work and regrets that she did not take the opportunity to apply to be considered for a second term. The nomination report records the Commission's appreciation of Ms Filkin's dedication to the work of the House and notes: She has successfully brought a number of complex inquiries to a conclusion. We also believe that her work has validated the system of parliamentary self-regulation established following the recommendations of the first Nolan report.

Much has been made of the press and its contacts and relationships. The new commissioner, like all Officers of the House and like his predecessor, is subject to a general requirement to maintain confidentiality. Given the nature of the position, the commissioner will need to agree with the Standards and Privileges Committee what contact he has with the media, but there is no question whatsoever of gagging Mr. Mawer. Indeed, should the House approve his appointment today, I am sure that he would be ready to talk to the press tomorrow.

The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) made an interesting, intriguing and delightful speech, as always. I can only paraphrase Voltaire and say that I do not agree with what he said, but I would defend to the death his right to say it. The Commission and the House welcome his warm words for Philip Mawer in his early-day motion. I have read in the press—it may be malicious gossip—that the hon. Gentleman intends to resign from the Standards and Privileges Committee. I can only give him the advice of Lord Beaverbrook: "Never resign. Wait until you're sacked." Since no one is likely to sack the hon. Gentleman from that role, I urge him to stay where he is and to give Philip Mawer positive advice. I know that Mr. Mawer would welcome that.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who was a member of the Commission for some time, as she said, asked about the accountability of the commissioner. The Speaker and the Clerk of the House will have general management and oversight of the commissioner, but under Standing Order No. 149, it is for the Standards and Privileges Committee to oversee the commissioner's work. No doubt that role will fall on the gentleman sitting next to her, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). The hon. Lady made great play of what the commissioner's contract would say. If the House approves the motion, Philip Mawer will sign a detailed contract, which covers dealings with the media and all the other matters to which she referred. It contains written arrangements for dealing with problems and grievances that may arise. I hope that I have answered sufficiently the points that she made.

I come to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) and his articles in Tribune. I have to tell him that I preferred him when he was playing cricket for Tribune rather than writing his articles. I know that he has probably given up the cricket, but he has not yet given up his articles.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made an eloquent speech, as we would expect. Like me, he knows Philip Mawer from a long time back. He is right in his assessment of Mr. Mawer's character and qualities. He said that he thought that there should be a long-term commissioner, and no doubt that point will be taken up in the weeks, months and years to come.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) made a positive contribution, which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) summed up nicely when he said that it related to structural arguments. It was a fine, thoughtful speech, and one that we ought to take into account as we constantly review our proceedings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) made a refreshing speech. It was a minority speech, and it takes a lot to be the only one in step, especially in the House of Commons, but he made powerful arguments. Of course, the public do not think very highly of MPs and their standards, but since 1974 we have been on a par with estate agents. I do not want to disparage estate agents, but we have never quite lifted ourselves from that level.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, who made an eloquent speech, brought the debate to a close. He has a different element of faith from some of us. He knows that I, a Protestant, have a Catholic wife, and so we go to a Catholic church as well as to a Protestant one. For Philip Mawer to have the full support of Catholics and Protestants, and for him to be nominated on Ash Wednesday, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said, would be worthy of the House, of the Commission and of Mr. Mawer, and I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That Mr. Philip John Courtney Mawer be appointed Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on the terms of the Report of the House of Commons Commission, HC 598, dated 6th February.